Friday, December 31, 2010

Our 2010 Travel in Pictures

January, 2010:  Valencia, Spain
February, 2010:  Vigo, Spain
March, 2010:  Las Vegas!

April, 2010: Los Angeles, California
May, 2010:  Amsterdam
July, 2010: Kew Gardens, UK

August, 2010: Mojacar, Spain
August, 2010: Seville, Spain

October, 2010: Atlanta

October, 2010: Virginia

December, 2010: Madrid

Old Year, New Year

Tonight we will celebrate the changing of the year in Madrid.  We will follow the tradition, and, with a little luck, pass into 2011.

The central place to gather in Madrid for the new year is Puerta del Sol.  The large square becomes packed with people, much like Times Square in New York City.  Unlike New York, there is no ball, or apple, or sponsored knick knack that falls from the sky.  Instead, the people stand and watch the large clock in the square, waiting for it to begin chiming.  The clock is televised, and formally dressed television personalities make small talk and compliment each other while waiting for the moment to arrive.  Finally, when it is almost time, the clock begins to chime.  The announcers will warn the audience to wait, because the first chimes are not the chiming of the hour, but the chiming of the quarters, which do not count.

Do not count for what?  For the eating of the grapes, of course.  With each of the first 12 chimes of the new year, Madrileños eat a grape.  Eating 12 grapes in such a short period of time can be a challenge, especially if the grapes have not been thoughtfully chosen.  The typical grapes which are available in Spain tend to be thick-skinned and have seeds inside.  I have found myself on the ingesting end of these grapes during New Years Past.  It all begins so simply, with the careful attention and the first chime of the hour.  The first grape goes into the mouth.  I chew, I come into contact with the seeds, I notice that the skin is somewhat thick.  The next chime happens, and I put a second grape in.  Then the third.  Now I am trying to remove seeds from my mouth, chew on the increasing accumulation of skins, and at the same time eat the next grape.  By the eighth grape or so, my mouth is full, and the skins and seeds are starting to slip down my throat.  I'm coughing, eating another grape, and gagging.  I wonder how many Spaniards do not survive the New Year ritual, collapsing with a throat stuffed with grapes.  There are lavish television reports on the car accidents of New Year's Eve, but I have never seen reports of what must be the dozens of choking fatalities. I can visualize them in my mind, the festive table, the knocked over glasses of cava, the face-down victim.

More recently, we have bought the grapes in tiny cans which are specially packaged for the New Year celebration.  Each can contains exactly 12 tiny, seedless grapes, swimming in water, waiting to be painlessly downed to generate luck at the appropriate time. 

The strangest thing about the New Year's celebration in Spain is the way that the people party.  Almost everyone stays at home with their families until midnight, and then they go out, and stay out most of the night.  The bars and restaurants are not open, the town is, for the most part, dead, until after the start of the new year.  Then the real work of partying begins.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Move Update #2

Accomplishments of the day:

• We brought Ricky to my parents’ house, giving us more freedom to pack and discard stuff as needed.

• We brought the following to my parents’: a cardboard box full of plants, a bag with odd and ends to return, Ricky’s cash register (so he can play with it there), one shelf, one box of books. The idea is to make room in my room/guest room so the books can be left there.

• We emptied our closet and finished packing two suitcases full of clothing (which will stay with my parents).

• I exchanged e-mails with two Italian men (who I don’t believe know each other) about the sofa bed we’re selling.

• I re-listed the stroller on a different site and listed a car seat.

• Bryan disassembled our coffee table, which belongs to my sister and is going to my parents’ house.

• A set of weights and a planter were taken out of our room.

• A bag of clothing we are donating is full now and has to be taken to the box down the street.

The fun continues.

Madrid: Railroad Museum & Patatas Bravas

Yesterday, we took Ricky to the Railroad Museum here in Madrid. It is located in an old train station, which has been out of use for decades. You buy your tickets and step onto the platform of the enormous old train station, with very high ceilings and iron work, and light streaming in from the huge glass windows at the end. There are four tracks with trains sitting there: an old steam engine, with a side removed so you can see all the pipes, a 1950s Talgo that was very fast for the times, an early 20th century wooden train, with illuminated windows where you can see a sleeping compartment, a bathroom with all fixtures, even a bidet. There’s also an antique cafeteria car, where you can sit down, pretend you’re traveling and have a cup of coffee.

On one side of the station, there are rooms with interesting artifacts: old train clocks, tools for fixing the tracks, old typewriters, an old telephone switching station from the 1930s, an oversized scale to weigh your luggage.

And Ricky’s favorite: several adjoining rooms with model trains. At least 50 years old, these models include elaborate landscape and tracks, where all kind of trains roam. On the walls of the rooms, there are antique toy trains in glass cases, from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Ricky wanted to buy them and take them home.

During the holidays, the Railroad Museum offers rides in the Christmas Train, which takes kids to all the main stations in Madrid: Principe Pio, Atocha, Chamartin and then back to the museum (the museum has tracks connecting it to stations that are still in use). In the spring, the museum offers tickets on the Tren de la Fresa (Strawberry Train), which takes travelers to Aranjuez, a small town near Madrid where strawberries are cultivated. We tried to get tickets for the Christmas train yesterday, but it was sold out.

After the museum, we walked a couple of blocks to Hermanos Guio / Museo de la Patata to have our aperitivo, a snack and a drink before lunch time. We arrived a little before 1:00 PM and were able to get a table (during the summer, this place has many outdoor tables lining the sidewalk, but in winter, either you take one of the five tables or you stand at the bar). This little bar is famous for patatas bravas. You can get either regular patatas bravas, fried cubes potatoes with a lightly spicy red sauce, or one of their many varieties of patatas with one of the following additions: fried peppers, garlic, picadillo (little cubes of stewed pork), oreja (pork’s ear), morcilla, bacon, chorizo, chistorra, among a handful of others.

At Hermanos Guio, they cook more than 200 kilos of potatoes every day. And they use no ordinary potato: the owners bring a special kind of potato from Segovia, which is a little yellow and very flavorful.

Bryan ordered a caña and I had a sidra on tap (a Spanish hard cider, which is quite sweet); Ricky drank a peach juice. Our drinks came with a tapa of potatoes with garlic. We also ordered a racion of patatas con picadillo. The service is wonderful, and you feel like you’re in a small Spanish town instead of in the middle of Madrid.

Museo del Ferrocarril (Railroad Museum)
Pº Delicias 61. 28045 Madrid
Metro: Delicias (line 3)

Bar Hermanos Guio / Museo de la Patata
c/ Ferrocarril, 21
28045 Madrid, Spain
915 271 930

Madrid: The Bulls at Las Ventas

Hemingway loved bullfighting. He loved bullfghters. He loved people who loved bullfighting. His Death In The Afternoon is the classic English language tract on bullfighting. Bullfighting plays a central role in his great novel The Sun Also Rises, both as a backdrop for the events and as a proving ground in which the noble characters display their best qualities by enjoying the fights, while the others show their own lack of merit. In that novel, he wrote "Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters."

The more modern view of bullfighting condemns it as cruel and primitive. There is an active movement in Spain to ban bullfighting, and recently a ban was put into place which will cover the autonomous region of Catalonia. The feelings over bullfighting are further complicated by the fact that Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain with an iron fist for more than 35 years, saw bullfighting as integral to the Spain he wanted to preserve and restore, and he promoted the ritual throughout the country.

With this historical baggage, and the encouragement of no one, I set about to see a bullfight. I spoke about my desire to see one for some time, and found that absolutely no one I knew had ever been to a bullfight, except for two women who were friends of Ana's parents. These two women, one in her late 50s and the other in her early 70s, had friends who often took them to the corridas and enjoyed them. When Ana told them that I wanted to go, they said they would take me with them one day. The promise of spending the afternoon with these two ladies (neither of them speaking English and my Spanish being, at best, defective) and the bulls was unusual, but if this was the only way I was going to see the famed spectacle, so be it.

As it turned out, they were able to get two tickets, so that I went with Ana. Ana was not enthusiastic about going to the bullfight, but she was just curious enough to overcome her distaste for the matter and accompany me.

The bull ring in Madrid is called Las Ventas. It is a lovely stadium, and surprisingly cosy. It seats 25,000, and was opened in 1929. I had been here once before, to see an R.E.M. concert. This was a very different experience.

We had box seats. This literally meant that the section in which we were seated had its own door, which had to be unlocked by one of the ushers. There was a level of seating below us, and below that, the sand of the arena.

The events began with the blowing of horns, and the playing of music, and the festively costumed participants came out into the arena, parading before the crowd. Men on horseback in plumed hats, and the matadors themselves, in their traje de luces, the lavishly decorated costumes in which they undertake their task.

The ritual of the bull ring is such that the ring is cleared, except for the matador, and the bull is released into the ring. We watched as the bull circled the ring, startled by its new environment. It ran past the matador, and he executed a few passes with the cape. It was interesting to watch, and very graceful.

The the matador departed and the picador entered on horseback. The horse wore a thick coat of padding and was blindfolded, and the picador carried a lance. The bull was enticed to charge the horse, and he ran hard toward it, crashing into the side of the animal while the picador drove his lance into the huge mass of muscle the bull boasted behind his neck. The bull stopped after making impact with the horse, and there was a strange stillness, as the picador leaned his lance into the bull's neck, the bull pressed against the horse, and the horse did nothing at all. It was an odd scene, in part because there was no sound as it occurred. The bull ran, there was not even a thud as it hit the horse, and then all was still. Then the picador pushed until the bull was off the horse, others came into the ring to distract the bull, and the horseman rode off.

The picador departed, replaced by the banderilleros. These three men entered the ring carrying small hooked sticks. Each of the men attempts to plant two hooked sticks behind the bull's neck, near where the lance has already wounded and weakened the bull. This lacked all grace. The banderilleros tried to have as little contact with the bull as possible as they planted their sticks. The bull succeeded in shaking many of the banderillas off.

The matador returned and did a few passes with the bull, which by now had blood covering its back. Then he was brought his sword. He stood before the bull, urging it to charge. The bull hesitated. The matator came closer, stamping his foot, trying to encourage the bull. The bull ran toward the matador, and the matador moved in swiftly with the sword, which bent and flew out into the air. The matador retrieved his sword and tried again. Again there was the hesitation of the bull, and insistence of the matador. Again the bull charged, and again, the matador struck. The result was the same, and the sword was once again retrieved. The thing had been bungled, it seemed, but there was nothing else but to go on. The set up happened again, the charge went on again, and this time, the sword went in, and the bull staggered. The matador walked away, his arms open to the crowd, which gave a polite applause. The bull sat down near the wall of the arena, and then fell over. Horses were brought out, and the bull was dragged away.

We stayed for the second of the six bulls, and found it to be more of the same. Ana had seen enough, and was eager to leave. I was happy she had come with me, and did not argue the point.

We had gone and seen the thing. I had not been thrilled, certainly by the corrida. I had not been horrified, either. It was a ritualized slaughter, nothing more or less. The crowd, mostly old, did not watch it so much as appraise it, intent to see that the thing was correctly done. There were cries of disgust when the sword missed its mark, and sighs of relief when it went in. It was not a passionate display. Perhaps other matadors bring more to it than the two we saw that day. It is a peculiar ritual. It is certainly not a sport, in the sense that there is no measurement of the achievement and the outcome is predetermined. It's a brutal ritual, and I saw no more art to it than one would see by observing at an abattoir. In past days, the bull would have been used for meat after the fight, but the European Union regulations do not permit that anymore. The crowd did not seem connected to the events on the sand, the ritual catharsis of the killing was not evident. An old ceremony, it seemed, where the congregation no longer has the faith but goes out of the habit. I suspect it will not last much longer, since the crowd was predominantly old, and it does not seem popular at all among the young. I'm glad I got to see it, but I won't be sorry when it is gone.  Were the bullfighters "living their lives all the way up"?  It did not seem so to me.  More like they are the few remaining priests at a temple which has lost its believers, going through the motions as they have been done in the past.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Move Update #1

We will be on a plane to Morocco on January 10, so we have exactly twelve days until we have shaken off all the stuff that sticks to us (furniture, kitchen things, books, clothing, bathroom items – all we own except for three carry-ons).

I’ve listed the sofa bed and the table and chairs, as well as Ricky’s stroller. I have not placed ads for the beds yet. I’ll do that tomorrow. I’ve received a few responses to my ads. Some promising, others insane. One man wanted to know if the table was in perfect condition, otherwise he was not interested, plus he wanted me to ship it to him in Burgos. Another guy said he wanted the sofa bed, but that because he was going out of town, he wanted to pick it up tomorrow between 12 and 2 pm, and that he assumed the couch was disassembled.

I’ve packed one and a half suitcases of clothing that we’re not taking with us on the trip.

I started packing a suitcase with small kitchen things I love: a few small bowls, four Japanese plates, an apron I bought in Rome when I went there with Satomi. She used it as a shawl when we went into Saint Peter’s in the Vatican (to satisfy the covered shoulders rule). I will also pack the bottle opener that makes wine bottles pop like they are champagne (Sharon gave it to me as a present for my birthday last year), a cutting board I bought in Argentina, a mortar and pestle made out of olive wood.

There’s a full suitcase with papers and photos and Ricky’s drawings.

Another suitcase will be packed with Ricky’s toys and books.

By January 7 at the latest, we will be done emptying our apartment. We’re meeting the landlord that day to give him back the keys. Our lease expires January 15, but we bought the tickets for the 10th because we are eager to be on the road and we’re really looking forward to warmer climates. We’d like a couple of days to rest before the trip, so that’s why we’re meeting the landlord on the 7th. Before that, we’ll paint Ricky’s room, because it needs it and we want to get our deposit back.

Bryan and I will stay in my parents’ house in Guadalajara for a few days starting sometime around January 5, sooner if we sell our bed right away (if we sold our bed and still needed to clean the place, we could sleep on an inflatable bed we have for a day or two). Ricky is going to my parents’ tomorrow and he’ll stay there most likely until we leave town. It is hard for us to get things in order here with Ricky around, because the move is very disorienting for him and he doesn’t want to lose anything. When we throw things into big plastic bags and he sees us, he often takes whatever we threw away out and decides he is keeping it. Old travel magazines, for example. Or boxes.

So tomorrow we’re going to my parents’ for some lunch (gnocci) and Ricky will stay there. We’ll work more productively then, hopefully. We’re probably not renting a storage area after all, although we always can at the last minute, if it gets to that. If all we have is six suitcases to leave at my parents’, then there’s room. So we’re trying to trim it down to that. It’s daunting work. Wish us luck.

Spain: Wild Living, Calimocho & Me

Today, my sister mentioned calimocho. Calimocho! That word brought me back a million years back, to my high school here in the Madrid neighborhood of Manoteras, to a time when I knew people who drank it. Calimocho, or kalimotxo, is a drink from the Basque country, popular all over Spain among young teenagers. Calimocho is made by mixing very cheap red wine and Coca-Cola, about half and half, plus ice. Some people also add a splash of berry liquor or other booze to the mix.

The red wine used is often from a box, and the Don Simon brand is a common one. Coca-Cola is best, but cheaper colas will also do. This is, first and foremost, a drink of economy. Some even say "the worse the wine, the better the calimocho." I have reservations about this. Usually, calimocho is prepared in the street, or in a park, so measurements don’t tend to be exact. Calimochos can be poured into a glass: add ice if you have it, and then pour wine up to half and then finish off with the cola. The traditional glassware you want to use is called a mini, a one-liter tall glass, which of course should be made out of plastic. Ice will make the bad wine less offensive. Another way, useful among those completely lacking in preparation, is to pour some coke out of the bottle and then add the wine from the box into the soda bottle, shake a little and drink, passing it around.

I was never a fan of calimocho, I tried it once or twice and it tasted awful. It may not have had enough ice. Several people from my high school sat around benches in the park right across from school between classes and drank litronas, one-liter bottles of cold beer that were shared. I think calimochos were drunk later in the day.

Today I made two calimochos, one for me and one for Bryan. These were not the teenage version: I used real glasses and decent wine from a bottle. I set out two glasses, added three ice cubes to each, filled the glasses half way with wine (a light red wine from Sardinia I have around the house) and then filled them all the way up with coke. I stirred the glasses and waited a little for the calimocho to cool down. Then we tasted them. I could only taste the coke, really. It was like coke that was a little less sweet. Then, as an experiment, I added a splash of the red plum liqueur my dad makes. It tasted about the same, no real improvement (although if the wine had been worse, it may have helped to make it sweeter). A slice of lemon may have helped.

Bryan drank his whole calimocho, I did not. He liked it. Although it was not bad, it was not to my taste. Give me a gin and tonic any day. Or a glass of undiluted wine (from a glass bottle, please).

Madrid: Storytellers in the National Library & Merienda at Embassy

We spent most of the day yesterday trying to get ourselves closer to being ready to call it quits with our apartment. This part of the task is getting pretty dull. We went through things, piled up stuff that is going to the garbage, piled up other stuff to be given away, and packed up the few things that are being kept. We're starting on the kitchen now, but that has the dual challenge of putting things away while at the same time needing to eat for the next week or 10 days that we are still here. We're leaving Ricky's room mostly untouched (at least in ways that he notices) until the very end, trying to give him some sort of sense of normalcy. Ana has placed ads to sell the furniture, and has gotten quick responses. Ricky was terrific all day, playing nicely, watching Charlotte's Web and eating popcorn. He took his scooter around the neighborhood with me, and threw batteries into the battery disposal thing in the base of the bus stop. Then we went to the corner store together and threw old clothes into the donation clothing box, and bought a couple things in the store.

In the late afternoon we went out to the Biblioteca Nacional de España. The National Library, in addition to being a scholarly resource, has lectures and a surprisingly extensive and impressive museum area. The museum covers the history of media in its many forms, and is a beautiful space. There was a temporary exhibition going on about cooking and cookbooks in Spain. As we entered, we were told by one of the guards that there were storytellers who were about to get started. It was unexpected and fortunate! We hurried down the stairs and arrived at the auditorium just in time to file in. The auditorium was nearly full, but we found seats together. Then we noticed that Ricky was going to be unable to see much of the show from where we were sitting. The storytellers found him a fine seat across the auditorium from us. He settled in to his seat and chatted pleasantly with the people around him. He is remarkably social. When the show started, though, he quieted right down and gave his attention to the two storytellers. A woman and a man took turns performing four stories. They were very engaging, singing and playing unusual instruments as they told folk tales from around the world and projecting shadows on a screen. Ricky was entranced. After the show he approached each of the performers and spoke to them at length about the show, asking questions and thanking them. It was a great success. And it was a complete surprise, and it was completely free!

After the storytellers, we went to the exhibit about cooking and cookbooks in Spain. It was very well done, with ancient cookbooks and recipes displayed going back to 16th century, plus old food preparation materials, some of which went all the way back to the Roman era.

Then we went to Embassy. Embassy is a bakery and a tea salon and a bar. It has several locations but the original is the only one with an area to sit down. It is located right on Castellana, and has been there since 1931. It wears its age gracefully, without gross modernization or precious preservation. We walked there from the library, and went inside. The waiter told us that because we had a child with us, we should only sit in the non-smoking section. Ricky told the waiter that his grandparents smoke. The waiter told us to grab whatever table we could when one became available. So we stood for a few minutes and waited, and speculated as to which people were going to leave first. We watched a table with an old man and two old women, all looking very prosperous. The old man paid his bill, and we thought they might be leaving, but then food was brought to the table. Another table opened up, but at the other end of the restaurant, and it was gone before we could take a step toward it. Fortunately, a table right next to us got up to leave, and we sat right down.

The menu was surprisingly broad, offering breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and meriendas. It was about 7:30 p.m., which is outside of the breakfast, lunch, and dinner times. Fortunately, it was merienda time, which meant we could get small dishes. We had hot sandwiches. I had a little baguette with anchovies, red peppers, tuna, and olives. Ana had a baguette with jamon iberico, cured ham, and tomato. Ricky had an open-faced sandwich of toast, ham, cheese, fried egg, and bacon. Ana had tea and I had a caña and Ricky had a glass of steamed milk. We watched the crowd come and go while we ate. It was very good, the staff was friendly and accomodating. By the time we left, and took the metro back home, Ricky was falling asleep. The town was festively decorated with holiday lights. It had been a good day.

Biblioteca Nacional de España, Pº de Recoletos 20-22. 28071 Madrid.

Embassy, Pº de Castellana, 12. 28046 Madrid.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

USA: Playing Las Vegas with a Child

As we get ready to start our trip around the world, we speak about the destinations we would like to visit: Chiang Mai, Angkor Wat, Penang. Ricky wants to go to Las Vegas. Ricky is very fond of Las Vegas. I know it’s a curious predilection coming from a boy of five. Blame us: we are an easy target, as parents often are.

You may be prejudiced against Las Vegas. You may think it plastic, showy, ugly, greedy, in bad taste, without principles. And it can be all those things, for sure, but not just those things. It has a bad reputation and it does not care. It is full of life. It is real, multifaceted.

Let go of expectations. Go with it. Las Vegas will treat you well.

Cities are like people: New York is charismatic, beautiful, intellectual, snotty. Los Angeles is sunny, pretty, complicated, scattered. San Francisco is the stunning popular kid who would have nothing to do with you in high school (but you can’t help loving). Las Vegas is not a natural beauty and it does not have a scholarly brain, but it’s charming, smart, fun, unpretentious. And it does not give a damn what you think of it. That kind of confidence is attractive.

Ricky has been to Las Vegas at least twenty times, possibly more. We used to go to Las Vegas for work a few times a year, and Ricky came with us, starting when he was two months old. He’s stayed in many hotels: the Tuscany Suites, the Wyndham, MGM, the Signature, Planet Hollywood, The Palms, The Four Seasons, the SkyLofts. Having been there so many times, we know the strip and we know areas where locals hang out. It’s a full city, not part of the Truman Show.

The reason Ricky likes Las Vegas are the same reasons you or I may give for liking it. I don’t gamble and I like Las Vegas (Bryan likes to play a little poker, but I can’t stand losing money). The rooms are ample. The lights are fun. There are many excellent restaurants. There is a lot to look at: fountains that dance, the Eiffel tower, more than one aquarium, lions napping, a Beatles show. You can find incredible food in Las Vegas: great authentic Thai, superb Japanese, an Italian place serving some of the best gnocci I’ve ever had. You can watch bonbons being made at a chocolate factory, and afterward eat some samples and walk around a cactus garden. You can see several Cirque de Soleil shows, all impressive. You can swim at the many pools. You can have an incredible massage. You can just find a place to sit and watch the people go by. Also, you can drive to great nature nearby.

And, on top of the list for Ricky: the play area. At several hotels in Las Vegas, there’s a day care center called Kids Quest where you can drop kids off for up to five hours in a 24-hour period. Ricky, when he was smaller, called it “the school.” He’s been to two different ones: the smaller one at the Palms hotel and casino, and the larger, newer facility at the Red Rock. He likes both a lot. Both locations have plenty of staff members to care for both bigger kids and babies. If you want, children can get a meal or a snack while they play there. Bryan and I have dropped Ricky off there and gotten a meal nearby more than once: at the Palms, we like to have dinner at the Little Buddha, a very good pan-Asian restaurant. At the Red Rock, we’ve loved Hachi, for sushi. If you are going to use Kids Quest service, don’t forget to bring a current vaccination record of your child with you the first time you go, as well as a pair of socks. Kids Quest charges between $7.25 and $8.50 per hour, depending on the age of the child and the day of the week.

The List:

For authentic Thai, a small unassuming place in an enormous strip mall complex, with a great, cheap lunch buffet:
Lotus of Siam
7425 South Durango Drive
Las Vegas, NV 89148

Red Rock Casino Spa Resort
11011 W. Charleston
Las Vegas, NV 89135

For great, fine dining Italian, including amazing gnocci:
MGM Grand Hotel & Casino
3799 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, Nevada 89109

Little Buddha
Palms Casino Resort
4321 W Flamingo Rd
Las Vegas, NV 89103

Ethel M Chocolate Factory and Botanical Cactus Gardens
2 Cactus Drive
Henderson, NV 89014

Kids Quest
The Palms Casino resort
Red Rock casino spa resort and other locations

I would give you the number of one the best massage therapists in the world, Jennifer Korsten, but she no longer lives in Las Vegas. She moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, so if you’re there, send me a message and I’ll give you her info.

Madrid: Eating in the Museums & La Libreria de Lavapies

La Libreria de Lavapies

Madrid's three most noted art museums are the Prado, the Thyssen, and the Reina Sofia. The Prado is huge and magnificent, with an enormous collection of mostly European art. This is the place to see the works of Goya and Velazquez, and important works by other great artists such as Bosch, El Greco, Raphael, Tintoretto, and Rubens. With a collection of over 8,000 works, and the capacity to display 2,000 works at any time, a visit to the Prado is certain to satisfy.

The collection in the Prado is limited to work through the 19th century. For more modern work, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen must be visited. The Reina Sofia is most famous as the home of Picasso's "Guernica." This masterpiece, an immense depiction of the attack conducted by Adolf Hitler and his ally Francisco Franco in the north of Spain in 1937, was kept outside of Spain during the long years of Franco's dictatorship. After Franco's death, and the restoration of democracy, the work returned to Spain, first residing in a special exhibition space, and then being moved to the Reina Sofia, where it can be seen today. Many other great Spanish modern artists, such as Juan Gris, Salvador Dali and Joan Miro, are well represented here.

The Thyssen is a more idiosyncratic collection, as it was privately collected during the 20th century by the Thyssen-Bornemisza family. The collection contains artists as varied as Titian, Rembrandt, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, and Picasso. It holds over 1,600 works.

There are many sources available to guide you through these museums, but few of them will focus on one important aspect: the cafeterias. After an exhausting visit to the museum, or as a break in the middle, the cafeterias are an appealing option. The main advantage the cafeterias have is location.

In the Prado, the cafeteria is located in the main lobby. It is large, with many tables, and offers both a la carte options and a menu of the day. The food is very good here, if somewhat overpriced. The whole neighborhood is overpriced, though, so unless you are ready to travel before eating, you might as well have a bite here. The coffee is terrific. There are also tiny sandwiches which are very good.

At the Thyssen, the cafeteria is located in a glass room near the main lobby. It has a menu of the day and a bar where one can have coffee or beer, and sandwiches. The food here has never looked great to me. Somehow, the space seems unappealing. I've had a quick snack here, but every time I've gone in hungry, I've left without actually having a meal, deciding instead to try and find something else on the outside. They do make very good fresh squeeze orange juice.

The Reina Sofia has a new restaurant that is stylish and surrounded by glass and which looks very impressive. It is run by Sergi Arola, one of the great chefs of Spain. It offers cutting edge cuisine and runs from 70 to 90 euros per person for a meal. There is also an area where you can get food at a bar, small dishes like sandwiches, or even somewhat larger ones, like a cut of beef and french fries. However, I was not positively impressed when I visited. The space is large and impersonal, and even though there was room for many people, there were only tables for a few. The music was loud, and the food looked good. I opted not to stay, and took a walk around the neighborhood. There I found a place I can recommend without reservation.

That place was called La Libreria de Lavapies, also known as La Libre. A tiny place, tucked on the corner of Argumosa, selling second hand books in Spanish and English, it had a warm and welcoming atmosphere. We sat comfortably, ate delicious muffins and drank excellent coffee. We had bread with cream cheese and salad and hummus. We had fresh squeeze orange juice, made from organic oranges. It was a cozy and fun. It was everything that you could ask for in a place for a nice mid-afternoon snack.

Museo de El Prado: Calle Ruiz de Alarcon, 23, 28014 Madrid.

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza: Paseo del Prado, 8, 28014 Madrid.

Museo Nacional Centro De Arte Reina Sofia: Calle Santa Isabel, 52, 28012, Madrid.

La Libreria de Lavapies: Calle de Argumosa, 39, Madrid 28012. 91 527 8992.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Spain: The World of Beer

The most popular drink in Spain is beer. Wherever you go, you will see people crowding the bar, mostly holding a small glass of draft beer, known as a caña. It is the standard drink. There are advantages to drinking beer instead of wine or a cocktail in Spain. One is that it's cheap. A caña typically costs between one and two euros, which is less than a soft drink. Second, in many places you get a free tapa with your beer. It is usually a small plate of something, it can be as simple as olives, or it can be patatas bravas or a tosta (a large slice of country bread with various toppings). It is not uncommon to make an evening meal out of the series of tapas which will accompany the cañas. In a country that loves bar-hopping, the small size of the caña means you can have your beer and your tapa and then move on to the next destination without being in danger of falling over. When you go out for the night in Madrid, it often can be a very long night.

A beer-related drink that's popular in summer all over Spain is the clara. A clara is a mix of beer and casera. Casera is a sweet clear soda that has been sold in Spain since the 1940s. A clara looks like urine and tastes like bad candy. Another such drink, that I have no respect for either, is tinto de verano ("summer red"). Tinto de verano is another mix (cocktail is too fancy a word to describe it), consisting of the cheapest red wine you can find (possibly sold in a box) and casera, the same soda used for the previous abomination. Don't ask me why people drink these things, because it's a mystery to me. My own mother drinks clara in the summer, especially at the beach.

As long as you avoid the drinks above, beer in Spain is cold and cheap and often decent. Each region in Spain carries different types of beer on tap. I usually prefer wine to beer, and I've spent years thinking the beer in Spain is not exceptional. It turns out things have changed and there's excellent beer in Spain. In the last year of living in Madrid, I've made two great discoveries: Rosita and Inedit.

Rosita is an artisanal beer from Tarragona, in the Catalonia region of Spain. I am very impressed with this beer. It comes in three varieties: the original (yellow label), ivory (white label), and black with hazelnuts (tan label). All of them are delicious, big flavored and have a strong body. All three beers taste toasted and fruity, with a complex aftertaste. The original and the ivory are both pale lagers (although the ivory is paler). They are made in small batches using only water, malt, hops, yeast, sugar and honey. No preservatives are used. The black beer with hazelnuts is my favorite: it is dark with a hint of sweetness, and I love it. I am not sure this beer can be found outside Spain, but it is worth looking for it. In Spain, it costs 2 euros per small bottle at the supermarket.

Another great beer is Inedit. It comes both in 75 cl and 50 cl in dark bottles with a star. This is a pale lager the color of straw. The most remarkable thing about this beer is that it has tiny bubbles, kind of like champagne, which give it a fabulous texture. The flavor is complex, with a hint of fruit and a pleasant soft bitterness. You can taste the mix of barley and wheat. It is made by Estrella Damm, one of the largest beer breweries in Spain. Adrian Ferra of El Bulli with his team was in charge of developing this gourmet beer. Inedit, the large bottle, costs 4.50 euros in the store.
Posted by Picasa

Madrid: Breakfast, a Meal On Your Feet

Madrid has a lot to offer in the way of food, but sometimes it can be hard to tell. Early in the morning is not a good time for gourmet eating. Basically, breakfast here amounts to getting enough in your system to get the day going, and no more than that.

One thing to remember about Spain is that the eating hours are unlike other countries, and strict. From the early morning until about 11 a.m., you can get breakfast. Spain is not England or the United States, and breakfast is not an important meal here. Most people eat breakfast in a bar, standing at the counter. The most important part of breakfast in Spain is coffee. Every bar you stop into will have a first class espresso machine. The coffee itself may vary in quality, but they will have a great machine. Usually, the coffee is a good experience. People drink cafe con leche for breakfast. You can order cafe solo, which is a simple espresso in a tiny cup, and it will not raise eyebrows at breakfast.

As a side note, you cannot order coffee with lunch or dinner. You can get it after the meal, but not with the food. It simply is not done. Also, you do not order cafe con leche after a meal. You can order cafe solo or cafe cortado, which is a cafe solo with a splash of warm milk. This practice actually goes against my own personal coffee drinking habits, which include coffee during meals (always black) and coffee after dinner with milk. I've tried to get coffee during a meal, but I've never been able to. The waiters have agreed to my order, and then added that they will bring the coffee after the meal. It's an uphill battle.

Most bars will offer some sort of inexpensive breakfast menu, which consists of coffee and a croissant for 2 euros, or coffee with toast and jam. There is also the barrita con tomate, which is a toasted roll with some grated tomato and olive oil. Eggs are not eaten for breakfast, at all. The only way to get eggs for breakfast is to order tortilla, which is more potato than egg.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Itinerary: South Africa

On January 26, we fly into Cape Town, via Johannesburg. We rent a car and we drive to our lodging in Hout Bay. This is south of Cape Town, close both to the beach and wine country. It will be the middle of the summer in South Africa, and we'll be happy to rest after a week in Morocco and a week in Egypt. Ricky is particularly looking forward to this part of the trip, because he loves the water and there is a special beach near Hout Bay where penguins live (Boulders Beach). For him, this combination of the beach and penguins is the highlight of the trip.

We are spending almost two weeks around Cape Town. The cabin we rented has a washer, a kitchen, and most importantly, a braai, which is a traditional South African barbecue. Coming from Argentina, this is important to me.

Cape Town has a great arts scene, wonderful restaurants, and wineries nearby. We've never been and we're excited about it.

After Cape Town, we're taking the Premier Classe train to Johannesburg. When taking this train, you go to the station, head to a special lounge for Premier Classe passengers where you drink coffee and snacks, and then board the train. There's a welcome reception in the lounge car, lunch and high tea are served, and then there's dinner in the restaurant coach. The trip is overnight: a total of 26 hours for a distance of 870 miles. You average less than 35 miles an hour, but you're having fun so you're not in a rush.

Then, we rent another car and drive to Kruger National Park. We're staying the first night outside the park and the next day we enter Kruger in the morning. We stay at Kruger for three nights, at a rest camp. Kruger Park is known for easy viewing of the Big Five: elephants, lions, rhinos, giraffes and cape buffalo. The Big Five were the animals that hunters found particularly difficult to kill on safari. We, of course, will limit our shooting to the use of cameras.

After leaving the park, we spend one night and the whole next day in Johannesburg. Then we're off to Cairo again, this time to visit the city and its wonders.

That's the end of the travel planning. We don't know how long we're staying in Cairo, although two different people have recommended that we stay for three nights there. We have not yet bought plane tickets beyond that. One idea is to go to Malaysia next, because there are affordable tickets from Cairo to Kuala Lumpur. And from there, to Penang, an island in Malaysia known for good food. And after that, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos. Another idea is to fly from Cairo to Cyprus, where a friend of mine I have not seen in a long time lives. And after Cyprus, Malaysia and so on. Unless we get some other idea before then. We'll see what happens.

Posted by Picasa

Madrid: Ricky Learns to Swim at Club Natacion Jimenez

One of the things I thought Ricky should learn to do at about this point in his life was swimming. It seemed like a healthy sort of activity, useful for his own safety and likely a source of fun in the future. There were classes offered by Ricky's school, but we also had, right across the street from our apartment, a large private swimming club.

We asked Ricky if he wanted to take lessons, and he said said he did. We promoted the idea, talking about the fun and the benefits, and we bought him the equipment and made presents of it. The only thing left was to take the lessons.

The swimming club near us, Club Natacion Jimenez, has a specific method they use in teaching children to swim, and they take children on as young as 18 months. The initial dozen lessons are conducted with the child and one an instructor, one on one. And they must be conducted on consecutive days. 12 lessons, 12 straight weekdays.

This past June we gathered Ricky's swimming equipment: his trunks, his cap, and his goggles, and brought him to the pool. We turned him over to David, the young instructor, and sat down at a table outside the pool, where we could watch through the glass wall. David led Ricky to the edge of the pool, and then got in. Ricky began to talk about how he was not quite ready to get into the pool yet. David picked up Ricky and brought him into the pool. Ricky tried to hold on to David's neck. The two of them went back and forth in the pool a couple times, and then David took Ricky's hands off his neck and held him on his back. And they started going back and forth. At this point, Ricky began to cry. Then we noticed that all the children were going through their lessons in tears. Someone sitting next to us said that the children all cried during their first week of lessons.

Ricky kept going on with the lessons, and kind of took to them. He liked David, and David always addressed Ricky as "campeon," sort of the equivalent of "Hiya, Champ!" By the end of the 12 lessons, only two weeks later, I watched in shock as David picked up Ricky and threw him into the pool. Ricky went into the water, went down, and came right back up, without any problems at all. It was impressive.

Ricky was impressed himself, and very pleased when he was given a little medal and a t-shirt. Then the swimming club closed for the summer, and we told Ricky that in the fall, he could go back, and keep learning to swim, and this time he would take group lessons, and there would be lots of other kids to learn with.

Ricky spent the whole summer declaring that he did not need more lessons, that he knew how to swim, and, most of all, that he did not want to take group lessons. I have no idea where this forceful aversion to group lessons came from, but we never did go back for more lessons. Hopefully, he'll pick up some kind of swimming skill beyond not sinking, but I don't know when that will be.

Club Natacion Jimenez, Avenida Madroños, 23, 28043 Madrid. 91 300 0258,

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Madrid: Ricky at the Numont School

Last Tuesday December 21, Ricky went to his last day of school at the Numont School of Madrid. We’ve been happy with the school. It is a small English school, the oldest British school in Madrid. It is in a quiet neighborhood, without much in the way of facilities but with a great staff that really cares about students. We chose our current apartment in Madrid because it is close to the school, only about two blocks away.

It was expensive to send him to private school, and we will not miss that expense. He attended the school for one full year plus one term (this is what the English call each trimester); he was there for reception and part of year one. Reception is what in the United States is called preschool, and year one is the equivalent to kindergarten. The school followed the British educational curriculum, which is very demanding, perhaps a bit too academic for children as small as Ricky.

Ricky complained that he hardly played this year, compared to last year with Miss Pammy. His year in reception was incredibly positive for Ricky. He started to write some letters and numbers and to read a little, and he also learned to be social in a large group. He loved it, and Miss Pammy knew how to motivate him and use positive reinforcement. He wanted to marry Miss Pammy. The head teacher, Mrs. Gemmell, also became close friends with Ricky.

About a week and a half ago, Ricky decided to go visit Mrs. Gemmell in her office. He had just had lunch and wanted to tell her something. He walked out of the lunch room by himself, went up the stairs and knocked on her door. She told him to come in. Ricky stepped into Mrs. Gemmell’s office and said, “I ate all the meatballs.” She congratulated him. He told her, “You said about presents.” Apparently, in the past, Mrs. Gemmell had said that if Ricky ever ate all his food (he rarely does), she would give him a present. So here he was, ready to claim what was his. Mrs. Gemmell gave him a little spiral agenda book. Ricky is not afraid to ask for things.

This year, he did not enjoy school as much. A lot of reading and writing was required, and Miss Davies, his year one teacher, was stricter than he was accustomed to. One thing about Ricky: he does not perform on demand, and he does not take well to negative reinforcement. He truly does not care what people think, and it is impossible to bully him into doing things, which brings us to the frogs.

Children in Miss Davies’ class had two-dimensional paper frogs tacked to a board in the back of the classroom. The children each had a frog. When a child misbehaved, his or her frog was moved, and some privileges, such as golden time, were taken away. This academic year, Ricky was constantly in fear of his frog moving. It was very stressful, the frog thing. He complained frequently about school. He felt that by going to school, he risked having his frog move, and he preferred to be safe, and stay away, rather than risk losing his frog.

Travel Makes You Happy?

Travel makes me happy. I enjoy traveling. It's odd, because if you break traveling down, many of the essential parts seem to be downright unpleasant. You get lost. A lot. You exchange the comfort of your home for smaller, ill-equipped digs. You don't have your bed. You don't have your pillow. You don't have your familiar foods. You have to concern yourself with the things that you take for granted at home.

And yet I love it. I love the anticipation of travel. I love to read the travel books. I love to look at the maps. I used to love the airport. I still love train stations and have a fondness of sorts even for a bus station.

When I reached my last year of high school, and I got a drivers license, I became eager to move. I began to drive around, relatively long distances, spending six or eight hours driving places. I kept driving around when I went to college, and I took buses and trains, too.

A friend and I drove to California one summer from New Jersey, and then we drove back. 9,000 miles in 12 days. We hadn't been there. We hadn't planned it well, running out of money and not even being able to pay tolls at the end.

I rode trains on the old Eurorail Pass one summer, often sleeping in the compartments to save money. For nourishment there was bread and cheese and wine. I was often filthy, and rarely very clean. And it bothered me not at all.

Take me out of my comfort zone, force me to live surrounded by novelty. There will be suffering, I will suffer. It's not really traveling unless you have points of suffering which serve as counterpoint to the points of extreme joy. I will complain. But if I'm not happy, I don't want to go home, I want to go somewhere else.

The old road has always appealed to me. I can't wait to get going on this one.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Let’s Talk About Food: Paella

In an average week in Los Angeles, Bryan and I made spinach lasagna, grilled chicken with garlic drizzle, grilled salmon, pasta with sardines, various salads. (Let me digress here for a moment: I miss making the black kale salad from the New York Times. I haven’t been able to get black kale here in Spain. I also miss going out to sushi, and the sashimi salads we got as take out. There is sushi in Spain, good sushi, but it’s too expensive). Since moving to Spain, our usual cooking looks like this: grilled mackerel, baked sea bass, pizza, roasted chicken with sweet potatoes, potatoes, onion, garlic and tomato, and paella.

My dad makes a great seafood paella, and has for years. A few times over the years he’s told me how to make it, but the instructions did not sink in. I’ve made OK paella following my recollections a couple of times in Los Angeles. But it was nothing special.

Then we went to Valencia, home of paella. We ate amazing paella at Borja Azcutia, a small neighborhood restaurant which serves several types of paella to order, and my ideas about the dish changed. We ordered a paella valenciana and a seafood paella. When you call to reserve, you need to tell them in advance which paellas you’ll be having. The paellas can be of different sizes (for 2, for 4, etc). We were four adults and three kids, and they told me to order two different paellas, and I did. For me, up until this point, paella had been a seafood festival.

Paella is a country dish, in the old days cooked outdoors over an almond wood fire, made of rice and whatever else you had at hand. Rice is important. The type of rice used for paella, bomba, is a short-grained rice that absorbs the broth and becomes creamy but not soft. A generous amount of oil is important, because a paella without enough oil is dry. The version of the paella valenciana we had at Borja Azcutia has pieces of bone-in chicken and rabbit, some beans similar to fava beans, slices of flat green beans and snails. No seafood. This humble dish, closest to the original idea of paella, became my favorite one.

After coming back from Valencia, I looked up some recipes for paella valenciana. Everybody does it their own way, so I took some ideas from recipes and with the paella from Borja Azcutia as my ideal, I set out to make paella. Now I’ve made it several times, and it comes out very well.

Ana’s Paella Valenciana

3 big cloves of garlic, minced
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, or more (from Spain if possible) [I don't measure, so it's approximate]
1 tb extra virgin olive oil
3 roma tomatoes, grated
½ tsp pimenton
½ lb pieces of chicken (bone-in)
½ lb pieces of rabbit
4 oz (100 g) of flat green beans, cut both across their length and width
2 oz (50 g) fava beans [I use frozen favas]
1.5 cups bomba rice (or other short-grained rice)
3 ¼ cups of chicken broth
1/4 tsp saffron (a pinch)
½ tsp turmeric
salt to taste

In a paella pan or a large wok-type pan, heat the oil at medium heat and add the garlic until fragrant (30 seconds). Add the pimenton, stir for a few seconds and add the grated tomatoes. Add salt to taste. Cook for a few minutes (adding a little water if it gets too thick). While the sofrito cooks (this is the tomato and garlic mix), in a different pan, brown and salt the chicken and rabbit pieces in a tbsp of oil and set aside. Also, after the chicken and rabbit are browned and set aside, brown the green bean pieces (at medium-high heat). Add salt to the beans and set aside.

Peel fava beans (defrosting them first if you’re using frozen ones). Add the favas and the green beans to the sofrito. Stir.

Prepare the broth by heating it to nearly boiling and adding both the saffron and the turmeric to it. Taste the broth for salt (it should taste good). Add the chicken and rabbit pieces to the sofrito, so that they are evenly distributed and pretty flat. Add the rice and stir a bit, so the rice is covered by the sofrito and not sticking to the sides. Make sure all is flat. Add the broth and cook at medium to medium low heat for about half an hour. It may take more or less time, depending on how high the flame is. Taste the rice as you go, to see if it’s done. It always takes a bit longer than you think it should. When the rice is al dente, turn off the heat, cover the paella, and wait 5-10 minutes to serve.

If you'd rather get someone to make the paella for you:

Borja Azcutia
C/ Almirante Cadarso, 16
46183 Valencia, Spain
963 161 270

Madrid: Taqueria Del Alamillo

Ricky went off to his grandparents last night, and dinner was up to us. Ana and I were kind of tired, because the whole getting rid of everything scene we are in is kind of stressful - there is a feeling that we are moving too slow, that it will never actually get done, that we are not going to be able to be ready when the time comes to leave. And there is the actual work, which is no fun at all.

The weather turned cold, and going out did not seem appealing. Staying in was not doing it for me, though, and I have been wanting Mexican food for weeks, but for one reason or another, we have not been able to get there. Last time, we drove out to the restaurant, found no parking in the area, and wound up going elsewhere. This time would be different.

We drove off and went to the pharmacy, where we picked up some of the medicines we had ordered. Yesterday was very productive in this regard. We were able to pretty much finalize our traveling medicine cabinet, and now we can start taking some anti-cholera vaccine. In Spain, if the pharmacy does not have something in stock, they tell you to come back later in the day to pick it up. So we did that. Then, having learned from our abortive attempt to drive to the restaurant last week, we found parking near a metro stop that was on the same line as the restaurant.

Now, Ana had been very reluctant to go out last night. She actually had not wanted to at all. But she went, because I wanted to. I appreciate that, greatly.

We got to the restaurant a little before 8:30. It was open, but only one table was occupied. We did not have a reservation. Ana had called, but they could only put us on the wait list. It's all but impossible to get a reservation here, especially at this time of year. All of December has been booked for more than a month, and last week they would not even put on the the wait list. We were greeted in a friendly and familiar manner, and then the hostess, Rita, told us that she did not have anything. Then she examined her book again, and said she had one table, and we could have it but it was reserved for 10 p.m. That was fine with us.

The restaurant is decorated in a traditional Mexican style, and there are paintings on the walls and many small items all around, giving the place a festive look. The staff is extraordinary. They are very welcoming, they greet you like an old friend. Many Spanish restaurants are either an extremely informal place where you stand at the bar or a very stiff, formal environment with either old, professional waiters, or youthful, supercool staff, neither of whch are particularly warm.

There are chips and salsa on the tables when we sit down. Ana asked for some additional spicy salsas, and they were quickly brought, along with margaritas. I ordered the ternera arrieta tacos con queso, while Ana opted for the pozole. We also got guacamole.

We drank our drinks and ate our salsa and chips and guacamole and we were able to relax and enjoy ourselves. The guacamole was terrific, so were the salsas. The margaritas were strong and tasty. When the food came, I was very happy. My three tacos had spicy, tasty bits of beef, well-marinated and with cheese. There was a large jalapeno served with it, which I cut up and put into the tacos. It was so good. I was so happy. I ate it without stopping to chew, I think. Ana's pozole, which is a Mexican stew, was good for the cold night. It was, though, not as good as the pozole which our friend Concepcion makes in Los Angeles.

This restaurant is so good, and so reasonably priced, it is amazing. It is really hard to go here during the winter, because the outdoor seating, which is probably 40 percent of the restaurant's space, is not available, so it is smaller and very hard to get space in. But it is so worth it. Our bill, for the guacamole, tacos, pozole, two margaritas, and a beer, totaled 41 euros. And when the check came, it was brought along with shots of tequila.

It was a good meal. I have scratched the itch. We may not make it back here again before we leave, but we will certainly come back here when we return to Spain.

Taqueria Del Alamillo, Plaza Del Alamillo, 8. Located near the La Latina metro stop. 91 364 2088. Closed Mondays.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Ricky Abroad: Thoughts about Being on the Road with a 5-Year-Old

We’ve traveled a lot since Rick was born in 2005. When he was two months old, we took him to Las Vegas (where he’s been at least five times since), and at five months he traveled to Spain from Los Angeles for the first time. Last year, we spent three weeks in Argentina. And last summer we were in England for a month. When he was two, we traveled from Los Angeles to New Jersey at least seven times. He’s been to sixteen states in the United States.

Because of all this roaming, I know that traveling means fun to Ricky but also stress. One of the ways that stress has manifested in past trips has been through illness. Ricky has all too often thrown up while traveling, even when he had not eaten anything unusual. The stomach trouble is usually accompanied by a very high fever. Also, he has frequently wet his bed at hotels, while at home this is a rare occurrence. Although he enjoys many things about hotels, he dislikes change and wants to remain at whatever hotel he is in, saying he does not want to go to another place, that he likes this one (especially if there's a pool).

Fortunately, Ricky will go to sleep in any bed and tends to sleep through the night. He gets up early and is very hungry in the morning. He can be reluctant to take a bath in hotels, and usually avoids showers.   On the whole, he is very good about staying at new places.

Ricky does not eat a lot of vegetables. He likes ketchup, and tomato sauce, and in the last year he’s started eating the super tasty chard fritters that my mom makes. Occasionally, he eats sweet potatoes. But other than this, Ricky is not picky about food, and we’ve been able to feed him in any restaurant while traveling. His favorite foods are hamburgers, eggs, breaded chicken, and pasta, but he can eat noodles and rice and meat and bread as long as there’s a sauce for him to dip things into. He loves all fruit. He drinks watered down juice and milk, and when very tired, he has a glass of milk as a meal.  This year he has also become crazy about fish.  He likes it no matter how it is prepared, and even enjoys pickled herring.

He loves museums, and although he is the loudest child in the world and tends to get overly excited, he looks at art and artifacts with interest and care. He has a million questions about exhibits, and loves museums that display furniture, and cars, and odd objects. During a tour of Martin Luther King Jr.'s boyhood home in Atlanta, he had a running conversation with the guide, discussing and speculating about the toys and games which were on display, and how the different rooms were used.  He is fascinated with the past, and wants to travel there in a time machine. One of his favorite movies is Back to the Future, and he believes that some cars can take you time traveling.

The plan for our upcoming adventure is to arrange for longer stays at some points during the trip, so that we’re not constantly moving from one hotel to the next. This, we hope, will give Ricky (and us) a time to rest and relax, and to create continuity and a small dose of routine. The first two destinations (Morocco and Egypt) will not allow that, since we are there for only one week in each place. But in South Africa, we’re staying in the same place for two weeks. And later on the trip, we may stay put in Thailand or Malaysia for even longer (this part of the trip is still unplanned). Since we’ll be traveling for months with a 5-year-old, we can’t run around the whole time. We will see what works and what doesn’t, and hopefully Ricky will have a great time.
Posted by Picasa

Madrid: Antonio the Dentist and Cosmen & Keiless

As part of the general trip preparation, we visited Antonio the Dentist yesterday morning. Ana had been having some tooth sensitivity to heat and cold, and we took the opportunity to get things checked out before we get on our way.

By the time I was Ricky's age, I had developed a healthy aversion to dentists. I used to go to an old man in Maywood, New Jersey. He diagnosed me with an overbite and made a plaster mold of my teeth and gave me some kind of corrective appliance when I was about 4. He was gruff and not particularly friendly, but he gave out small toys when everything was over. Once I got a magnet. Ricky, though, has no such aversion.

Ricky went in with Ana. He sat down in the chair, and looked at the tray of instruments that was kept nearby. He spotted the various drilling implements right away, and he screamed. "Not these! Not these!" he said in Spanish. His whole experience with doctors lately has been with getting shots, and he thought this was a new and diabolical twist on the whole vaccination thing. Fortunately, not only was he mistaken about what he was looking at, he did not need any work done. Ana was also looked at, and x-rayed, and given a clean bill of health. I, on the other hand, was given a thorough cleaning and polishing as well as a lecture on flossing. Ana's parents have known Antonio the Dentist for about 20 years, now. He does fine work when it is required, but he is not shy about saying that everything is fine, nothing needs to be done, and not charging at all. He is also very friendly.

With my newly cleaned and shiny teeth, as well as the freshly approved teeth of Ana and Ricky, we left the dental office. It was starting to rain, and we stepped into a small bakery. We had seen it while walking from the metro to the office, and it had been stuffed full. Now, it was empty. The bakery is called Cosmen & Keiless. It is one of those little places that seems like it has been there for 100 years, but it is actually new and part of a chain. There are nine of these bakeries scattered around Madrid. We had not gone into any of them before, although we'd passed by several.

Cosmen & Keiless is set up to make efficient use of small space. There are some bakery chains in Madrid, like Mallorca, which operate vast establishments, with many tables to sit at, large areas to gather in front of the cases, and lots of prepackaged goods. Cosmen & Keiless takes another route. The stores are narrow, and the area in which customers can walk is not deep. There was a tiny counter at the shop we visited, with a single stool. Spaniards have a prediliction for eating snacks and drinking coffee while standing, anyway.

The first suprising thing I noticed was that they had bagels. Bagels are not a Spanish food. Bagels are, in fact, all but unheard of in Spain. Someone opened a bagel shop in Madrid several years ago, but it failed. These bagels were small and would not have generated any notice at all even compared to the tame and non-traditional product sold at Panera, but the fact that they were there was interesting. And they had a good flavor. The coffee was excellent, the staff was friendly. Ricky had a palmerita, a small elephant ear cookie, which he had good words for. We bought a seeded whole wheat loaf, and it was excellent. There were cakes, and cookies, and many things which, to use a Spanish expression, tienen buena pinta. We grabbed a couple of meat empanadillas, which were very good. They were different, as they were stuffed with pork instead of beef.

I'll be returning to Cosmen & Keiless if I get the chance, to try some of the other sweets they offer. It was only a first impression, but it was a good one.

Clinica Dental, Dr. Antonio Cabanillas
Guzman el Bueno, 123, 1 izq
28003 Madrid
91 553 3192

Cosmen & Keiless
Cea Bermudez, 62
28003 Madrid
91 441 3895
Various locations.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

On Vaccines, Breakfast and Pharmaceuticals

In preparation for our trip, we’ve been vaccinated against the following: typhoid fever, hepatitis A, hepatitis B (two doses, a third next year), a meningitis vaccine cocktail (A+C+Y+W135 - no idea what this means), rabies (three doses) and a polio booster. Bryan also had a tetanus booster. Ricky had the typhoid fever and the rabies shots; the others he had had already.

We had so many shots, and went to the International Vaccination Center so many times, that we became regulars at a nearby wine bar called La Vinateria de Don Ramon that serves breakfast in the morning (no wine with your breakfast). The Ukranian waitress actually knows us (maybe because we tipped too much). For 2.50 euros you get one of the breakfast specials: café con leche and a montadito (tiny sandwich with different fillings: jamon Serrano, egg and bacon, tortilla and fried pepper, or tuna). For 2 euros you can have the cheaper breakfast: coffee and a pastry. The place was packed every morning we came after our shots. If you’ve spent any time in Spain you know that breakfast is not a big meal in Spain. Most people have a coffee and something sweet, or toast. One of the heartiest choices is a slice of tortilla de patatas with a piece of bread. Tortilla is often described in English as a potato omelet, but it has more body than an omelet, it is sliced into several portions, and it can be eaten warm or cold. Another popular breakfast choice here is a small baguette, toasted, with olive oil and grated tomato.

Since we are done with the vaccination center, this week we’ll be taking a trip to the pharmacy. We have prescriptions for Dukoral, an oral cholera vaccine (two doses for us and three for Ricky). The cholera vaccine may not work to protect you against cholera, but it seems to reduce travelers’ diarrhea, so the doctor recommended it.

Also, the three of us will be taking Malarone, a medicine that protects you against malaria. Malarone has to be taken two days before and a week after you are in a malaria-risk area. In our case, the first such place will be Kruger National Park in South Africa. Then we will take it before we go to Angkor Wat (sources disagree about whether there is malaria in Cambodia around the temple touristy areas). We don’t intend to go to any other places where malaria is around. So we will buy six boxes of regular Malarone and three boxes of pediatric Malarone, just to be safe.

We are also bringing Cipro and the pediatric equivalent in case of serious intestinal trouble. We also have two mosquito nets, and DEET mosquito repellent, both for skin and clothing. To top it off, we’ll carry your usual first aid kit: Band-Aids, antibiotic ointment, disinfectant, hydrocortisone cream, decongestant, Tylenol, Pepto, my asthma inhaler.

If you need travel immunizations and breakfast in Madrid, these two places are excellent. They are located near the Lista metro stop (line 4):

International Vaccination Center

Centro Monografico de Salud Internacional - Vacunas
C/ Montesa, 22
28006 Madrid

La Vinateria de Don Ramon
C/ Don Ramón de la Cruz, 87
28006 Madrid


I am sitting in the living room of my apartment, surrounded by the precious debris that seems to immediately accumulate when I declare myself to be "at home." We are in the process of vacating a home for the third time in the last few years. Last time, we moved out of a Los Angeles apartment we had lived in for 12 years. Shortly before that, we had to vacate my childhood home, after my father died.

My father had lived in his home for the last 30 years of his life. For the second half of those 15 years, he lived there alone. That meant 15 years in which the house had never been thoroughly cleaned, and in which he was able to fully indulge his tendency to retain things. The greatest sin possible, in his eyes, was to discard something and need it later. The sheer bulk of the job was terrifying. We started out sorting, trying to figure out what to keep and what to discard. It soon became apparent that there was very, very little that was worth keeping. That not only applied within the house, but in general. Most things are replaceable. There is no need to confuse a home with a warehouse. I had never gotten rid of my childhood debris, it had all remained in my father's house. Over the years, while I had made various moves around the United States, additional items had accumulated there, while little had been removed. All the while, my father continued to accumulate things, filling every corner of the house. We found no fewer than eight George Foreman Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machines in varying shapes, sizes, colors, and states of repair. Piles of papers lined the stairways, and not a room in the house had a free surface. And nearly all of it, more than 99 percent of it, was junk.

Trucks came to the house, and left filled with garbage. Still there was more. Dozens of trash bags went to the curb. We were scolded by the trashmen and by the town zoning enforcement agents. Still there was more. We held a giant sale, but the things persisted. We advertised the furniture, asking only that people come and pick it up, and the furniture went. But we never actually were able to get to the bottom of the mess. Finally, we declared victory and retreated, leaving most of the lower level of the house (the basement and the crawl space) as it was. When we sold it, we let the buyer know that they were getting the house with all the treasures. At the last minute they said they wanted a discount because of the things in the house. We refused, and they accepted the property as it was. It was just a negotiating ploy. They were knocking the whole building down anyway.

When we finished with the months of work my father's house required, we started rethinking our pack-rat habits. From our apartment, we began to remove things we were not using. Part of this was the pressure of space, of adapting our home to a growing boy. Part of it, though, was actually a lesson learned about keeping things, or perhaps better to say an acquired aversion. Still, it took months to dig out of our own home, and there was still a massive amount of work to be done before we left.

In Spain, we have not been here long enough to really get into trouble with having too many things. But there are enough to worry about. With less than three weeks to go before we leave, it will not be a terrible job to get finished here. But it will be work.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Images Creating Memories: Busch Gardens

The way we remember our past is shaped by the manner in which it is recalled. For most of us, our childhood is marked by a few split-second moments, captured on film, and perhaps a handful of super 8 movies which bring three minutes of the past back to us. These are the illustrations to the book we each keep, where we tell ourselves the story of our own lives.

Digital technology has changed all of that. I have literally thousands of pictures of Ricky. Even though my father was an avid photographer, there are, comparatively, only a handful of photographs of my childhood. This changes the way we experience and remember our lives in general, and travel in particular.

When I was small, and my family would take a vacation, we would to come back with one or two rolls of film, to be mailed off and processed. These came back as slides or prints. If they were prints, they were then placed in albums and put into the closet. If they were slides, they went into a carousel, and were placed in the same closet. Neither was brought out frequently or easily. When they did emerge, these images served as symbols of entire visits, signifying far more than they would actually depict. My father would view these shots and see them in context, as part of a continuity of experiences, and they would serve to bring out an entire story. For the child in the photo, though, they are just fragments, broken seconds from lost lives. We can draw conclusions from them, but we cannot relive them.

With digital cameras the nature of the pictures change. We no longer have a few scattered moments. We have dozens, hundreds, to choose from. We can tell the story many different ways. We can point out the things we saw, or how we looked there. We can focus on the times we were happy, or the times of distress. We can assemble a photographic diary which takes up no room at all, and which is indexed and available at our fingertips. We can create the illusion of continuity in our memories, with faith that little is being lost. That faith, though, is likely misplaced.

There is one other photo I have from the trip to Busch Gardens:

I am certain I have no independent memory of this, but the memories of viewing this photo over the past 35 years have taken over for any memories of the visit which I might have once had. The question is whether the memories of viewing the photo have pushed out other memories, or simply persisted while the other memories faded on their own. Since there are only two photos, I can say with great confidence that they have not created an alternate memory of the trip. But now, when we capture so many more images, what will be the effect? Will we more easily be able to place ourselves in the times and places we photograph, or will we simply place ourselves in the times and places where we viewed the photographs?

Posted by Picasa